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Staff Walkout at the Science Museum

Employees at the Science Museum in London and other sites across the rest of the UK took part in a 24-hour strike in August in a dispute that centred on low pay. The senior management team at the Science Museum Group (SMG) had offered staff a new pay award. However, the day-long action that took place on Friday 30th August was called after this was rejected by employees earlier this year.

Museum professionals and other staff members had turned down a pay settlement that was offered to them which would have seen an average increase of pay of just 1.5 per cent. Given that this was below inflation levels for over three-quarters of staff, the rejected pay offer should not have come entirely as a surprise to the SMG’s managers. That said, the walkout has heightened the stakes in the ongoing dispute over pay.

Many of the striking museum workers are represented by the Prospect union. It claimed that the SMG’s proposed award was not only a real-terms cut in pay because, for most employees, it was below the inflation rate but that it had to be seen in a wider context. The union said that staff at the SMG’s sites in London, Manchester, Bradford, York and Wiltshire had already put up with a 13 per cent real-terms pay cut since 2010 when inflation was taken into account.

One striking employee, Laurel Mackie, joined hundreds of others in London in the walkout saying that she earned less than the living wage in the capital. An explainer who holds demonstrations and organises shows at the Science Museum in South Kensington, Mackie was reported to have said that she loved her job but her employers were falling behind the pay rates of nearby institutions. She told reporters that the Science Museum needed to pay all staff at least the real living wage for London, just at the Natural History and Victoria and Albert museums do – institutions which are in the same borough.

science museum strike

Image: Frankie Roberto – https://www.flickr.com/people/84195101@N00

The Prospect union said that the average salary among striking SMG staff in the capital was £23,000 per year. Union officials admitted that this average level of pay had seen a rise between 2014 and 2018 but they pointed out that this had been low, at just 1.6 per cent over that four-year period. The level of pay for average museum employees was, they said, only put into its fairest context when it was compared to the pay of the SMG’s director, Ian Blatchford. Mr Blatchford was said to have been awarded a pay bonus last year that was somewhere between £20,000 and £25,000.

Another London-based SMG employee, Carlos Alvares, echoed the sentiment. An explainer who has been employed in the Kensington museum for two decades, he said that public institutions, like museums, ought to be held to high standards when it came to pay awards. Mr Alvares said that he was, “barely making enough,” and that it was a struggle to break even each month, with him even finding it hard to pay for his daily commuting costs from north-west London.

It is important to note that the strike’s particular issues surrounding the high cost of living in the capital did not mean that the walkout was confined to the Kensington site. The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, the National Railway Museum in York, the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire and Locomotion in County Durham all saw similar industrial action taking place. Indeed, Blythe House in London – where much of the SMG’s collection is held – also saw striking staff failing to report to work alongside the flagship museum in the capital.

One worker at the Science Museum said that he had started a petition which called on the management team at the SMG to meet the same real living wage levels of similar institutions that would match the rate of inflation. As the strike drew more public attention to the issue of pay at the SMG, so the petition gathered more signatories. The petition states that SMG staff are passionate about their work. Tellingly, however, it goes on to say that employees feel overworked and undervalued and that many of them are unable to afford to carry on working in the jobs they love because of years of real-terms pay cuts and the reduction of staff welfare benefits at the group.

One of the union officers at Prospect said that the Science Museum had generated a surplus revenue of several millions of pounds which meant that it could reasonably afford to pay lower-level staff more than it was currently doing. He added that members of the public tended to be on the side of low-paid museum workers when they discovered their levels of remuneration. Front-of-house employees at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester are said to earn just £8.70 per hour. According to striking staff there, that is significantly below the national living wage. When informed of that by picketing workers, one visitor to the museum said that he was disgusted by the salary of the director and his yearly bonuses in light of the low levels of pay given to rank and file employees.

A statement from SMG was issued in response to the striking workers’ claims. It said that the museum group expected all of its sites to be open despite the industrial action and that their priority was to make sure that visitors had an enjoyable day. On the pay award, the SMG claimed that the overall pay offer represented a settlement of 2.7 per cent. This was a, “reasonable offer, given the challenging overall financial picture,” the senior management team claimed. Their statement continued that every employee had been offered an increase of at least 1.5 per cent and that the focus had been on those on the lowest levels of pay who were, “offered up to 6.9 per cent.” The pay dispute has yet to be resolved and staff members have, thus far, refused to rule out further industrial action.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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